In issuing such an ultimatum to protesters — to leave the public park peacefully or be forcibly evicted — Reed is actually taking an action that has its historical roots in 19th century black oppression in the very same city. As Georgian attorney and human rights activist Kung Li details in a piece for Colorlines, Occupy Atlanta is not the first time the city has been occupied by people seeking jobs and economic and social justice.
Following the Civil War, much of the South passed what are known as the “Black Codes,” which were a way to continue using black labor for very low costs after slavery had been outlawed. Under these laws, the movement of African Americans was strictly controlled, and blacks were often required to sign up to low-wage labor contracts to avoid arrest. In effect, these laws were designed to prop up the white aristocracy and to try to continue de facto slavery after it was outlawed.
But many African Americans in Georgia resisted these codes and wanted to live as free people. So they fled to Atlanta as a safe haven, and they used Woodruff Park, where Occupy Atlanta now resides, as a refuge. The white aristocracy that ruled Georgia didn’t want to see these individuals live free, so they passed new laws against vagrancy which made it illegal to “wander or stroll about in idleness” without a labor contract. The police raided Woodruff Park and the surrounding areas, arresting blacks and forcing them into labor contracts.
Thus began a series of crackdowns against mostly working class African American people that continued repeatedly throughout Atlanta’s history. In 1906, thousands of white vigilantes gathered near Woodruff Park and combed the city, uprooting free blacks and killing many in the process. By 1960, African American students used occupations throughout Atlanta to win civil rights, and faced both police brutality and mob violence. In 1996, the city sought less violent means to dislodge its mostly black homeless population. With the Olympics approaching, the city shut down the park for renovation and filled its jails with African American vagrants. One tactic that Li does not mention was that the city was so desperate to remove its homeless population that it actually started handing out free one-way bus tickets.
Now, in 2011, the city once again is posed to evict people who are encamped in Woodruff Park because they have a lack of decent opportunity to live good lives or are advocating on behalf of those people. Mayor Reed should think about the historical legacy of such evictions in his city.